May 19, 2017      

Well, that didn’t take long.

Consumers in the United States who buy a drone for recreational purposes no longer need to register it with the Federal Aviation Administration. A Washington, D.C. federal court ruled the FAA’s drone registration rule violates Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act that Congress passed in 2012.

Today’s ruling doesn’t apply to commercial drones. If you’re buying a drone for commercial purposes, you still need to register with the FAA.

John Taylor, a recreational drone flyer, successfully argued he should not have to register because the FAA Modernization and Reform Act states the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.” Taylor sued the FAA on Christmas Eve 2015, just shortly after the drone registration system launched.

The FAA registration system required hobbyists with drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds to register their drones. Since December 2015, more than 820,000 operators have registered. The process, which could be completed online, cost $5.

The FAA released the following statement about the court’s decision: “We are carefully reviewing the U.S. Court of Appeals decision as it relates to drone registrations. The FAA put registration and operational regulations in place to ensure that drones are operated in a way that is safe and does not pose security and privacy threats. We are in the process of considering our options and response to the decision.”

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There are two ways the FAA can appeal this ruling:

  1. The FAA can appeal to all of the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, which is called an en banc review. The decision was made by a three-judge panel. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was denied an en banc review during his Deflategate saga.
  2. The FAA could also appeal to Congress

However, Jonathan Rupprecht, a drone lawyer who was part of Taylor’s legal team, explains why there’s a good chance this is the final stop for this case.

“The reason why this case is important is we have had only lower level rulings on drone issues. The Haughwout case (the kid with the gun and the drone) was a ruling on the FAA’s subpoena powers from a federal district court in Connecticut. The Pirker case that was all over the news was appealed only up to the full National Transportation and Safety Board. This is a federal circuit court – right below the United States Supreme Court. Something like 1-2% of the cases appealed to the Supreme Court are granted certiorari to be argued at the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Others in the drone industry don’t appear to be happy with the court’s decision.

“Drone registration is a good policy because it promotes accountability and provides an opportunity for the FAA to educate pilots on the guidelines for safe operation,” Brendan Schulman, VP of policy and legal affairs at DJI, says in a statement.

“The goal of the registration rule was to assist law enforcement and others to enforce the law against unauthorized drone flights, and to educate hobbyists that a drone is not just a toy and operators need to follow the rules,” says Lisa Ellman, an attorney and specialist on the drone regulation with the law firm Hogan Lovells. “These are worthy goals, so if this ruling stands it wouldn’t surprise us to see a legislative response here.”

In April 2017, the FAA was audited for the second time by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT IG) for its “approval and oversight processes” for drones. The audit will assess both the FAA’s processes for granting waivers and its “risk-based oversight” for entities that do have waivers under the Part 107 rulemaking for commercial drone operations.